From personal experience, growing up in Nigeria, similar reasons as above, the need for freedom and affordability, led to thousands of civil servants and middle-class citizens moving to affordable homes in the suburbs of the city of Lagos. This movement of masses out of cities expanded the boundaries of these cities with the connections between the main city and suburbia being roads lined with conveniences like gas stations, cheap motels, storage locations, and all the necessary businesses to support our transit based lives of living far away from work and school. This is the point where cities started to fail.
In Peter Calthorpe’s, a renowned architect, assessment of where cities failed, he suggests that earlier cities were built to bring people together but that, through urban sprawl to the suburbs, we did everything to tear people apart. Infrastructure sprawl, suburbia and all that was required to maintain suburbias appeal, led to more roads and cars to get us to the homes that were now far away from even the most simple conveniences like grocery stores.
Calthorpe and members of the Congress of New Urbanism believe that we need to stop expanding cities so voraciously even as more people move in. Calthorpe and his cohort suggest that a new approach is required to sustainably allow cities to grow; with nature’s needs at the core, adopting mixed-use infrastructure in small dense clusters that are walkable for the residents of the city, all around a web of transit.
Wat’ In The World
Even as people dispersed and moved out of cities into suburbs, most city planners and water utilities kept the centralized water distribution system that we got from the Romans. Every upgrade to the water distribution system has been based on this centralized system foundation. The system operated by collecting water from the source, transporting it to one location for filtration/decontamination, then transporting it to storage tanks where gravity was used to deliver it to end users.
Expansion in the land area where people live (i.e. sprawl), precipitation level reductions and competition for water resources strains this water system. And this strain comes at a point when there is no willingness to spend money on the facilities that are required to maintain clean potable water for homes. To ease the strain, we will have to move to a distributed water system. Similar to the systems on the power side where there is now a need to accept the distributed, decentralized and digitalized grid. We will have to move to a distributed water system future.
There are some glimmers of hope showing a mindset shift is already taking place in some parts of the water utility industry. Some operators of water utilities now see themselves as custodians of a precious resource and service providers and not just as rate collectors. But the business model shift that is required along with this mindset shift has not taken place yet. That has to happen. Similar to the suggestions of Calthorpe and crew above, a new approach is offered; reusing or rebuilding the infrastructure that is already there in ways that make it useful and usable for the growing population while keeping it sustainable for the future of the planet.
Moving to Water 4.0
What does a distributed water system look like? What does Water 4.0 look like? A distributed water system future takes the radical approach of ‘pushing the responsibility of water acquisition, treatment, and management back to the individual household or neighborhood or ‘cluster’ (in the words of Calthorpe).
What does Water 4.0 mean for the water utility business model? Water 4.0’s business model means that the water utility disconnects its revenue from how much water people use and attaches it’s revenue to the services and operations of managing these distributed water systems on behalf of the clusters that own those systems. It’s one that says to a developer building a new estate outside the current water distribution system that the water utility will provide effective water utility management software, which our company provides, and the resources to help the residential estate or building ensure that their residents get clean potable water sustainably.
The same thinking shared by Calthorpe above provides a template for how we manage the water system in towns/cities going forward. The clusters of livability will have to become clusters of water acquisition, treatment, and management, closer to where people are. It’s one that eschews the current approach of huge infrastructure for centralized water management. Infrastructure we actually can’t afford. Unfortunately, as evidenced by the example of the town above, we are failing to approach the future this way.
Doing It Right This Time
Taking the approach offered by Calthorpe and his cohort, building new homes and conveniences for the people migrating from this large city to the small town would focus the new builds on taking the strip malls and commercial areas of town and adding homes there. Those transitory roads that the current dwellers of the town drive through to go from home to school/work are lined with storage locations, U-Haul lots, cheap hotels and the familiar strip mall store brands in mostly one or two story buildings. One or two story buildings of underutilized spaces. Underutilized spaces that already have functional water pipes connected. These buildings could be converted into three to four-story apartment buildings that expand the capacity of those spaces with minimal water (and other utility) infrastructure upgrades. A more cost-effective and sustainable alternative to the current plans for this town that is about to be hit with a lot more than the utility operations team is equipped to deal with.
The I in IOT is for Information
How do the three trends impact the water utility?
More people moving to cities: as more residents cram into mega highrise buildings in downtown areas of cities, water usage goes up while the source water isn’t replenished and the infrastructure that the city or water utility has to ensure supply isn’t upgraded. Process inefficiencies then lead to water quality and delivery issues.
Growing inequality: Middle America, in cities or towns, isn’t earning enough to afford to pay the utility for the true value of water. Even as the infrastructure available decays.
Increasing suburban sprawl: Even as Middle America moves in, sprawls, further away from the available water distribution system infrastructure they require the water utility to serve them in their new locations. Inflicting a cost the utility is unable to bear.
Along with not building more infrastructure, there is also the need to communicate why and what is going on to the current residents of this town. For Water 4.0 to happen we, we will have to involve the residents and people of cities. Even as the public works team scramble to keep the water system running for their citizens, they are mandated to communicate the quality of the water and the state of the system to their residents. The water utility team will have to educate their customers if they want to survive the transition to Water 4.0. We’ve built a tool that helps the water utility team to start to increase engagement and educate all stakeholders on the real work that goes into managing a sustainable water system.